RADIO / Playing truths and consequences: Robert Hanks on keeping people quiet in The Whole Truth and Treasure Islands

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The Independent Culture
MR Justice Potter had a run of bad luck last year. First, a murder trial over which he was presiding collapsed when a witness overdosed rather than testify in open court. Then the supposed victim of a machete attack couldn't remember where the scars came from but thought he might have had a car accident. Finally, three taxi- drivers refused to give evidence about a shotgun attack on one of them. At this point Mr Potter snapped, sending all three down for three months. 'One doesn't do it with pleasure,' he said later, 'but it has to be done.' You probably remember schoolteachers saying much the same to you; even then, it didn't sound terribly convincing.

The thesis of The Whole Truth (Radio 4, Tuesday), a File on 4 special presented by Gerry Northam, was that witness intimidation is becoming a significant problem for this country's police and the judiciary (especially Mr Potter): the police estimate that since the start of last year 17 major trials and 300 investigations have had to be abandoned because important witnesses were too scared to speak out. Tyneside has it particularly bad - a local man said that people were 'getting away with murder', and it didn't come across as an idly chosen phrase.

Witness protection programmes should, in theory, be the answer. The advantages were spoken for by Danny, who described how, in the run-up to a trial last year, he spent his nights going tenpin bowling with the boys in blue, and playing snooker in police staff-rooms. 'The guys were great,' he enthused, making it sound more like Club 18-30 than looking after his teeth in Strathclyde.

But even when witness protection works - which isn't always - it can't go on for ever. After the jury brought in a 'Not Guilty' verdict on the trial at which Danny was a witness, he sensed a change in the police attitude. Within a few weeks he had no round- the-clock guard - just a manual on self-protection and some useful numbers to ring in an emergency - and after six months of being looked after, he felt 'exposed'. The image he brought to mind here, sounding rather pathetic, was of a baby plucked from the mother's breast. As it happened, the police officer in charge of the case did speak of 'weaning' him off protection, while another officer, speaking more generally, said that witnesses couldn't expect to be 'wet- nursed'.

The other solution is to allow witnesses to testify anonymously, from behind a screen. The most eloquent argument against this came from Dessie Noonan, acquitted of murder last year in a trial where anonymity was refused. He was worried by the prejudicial effect screens would have on the jury - their presence might create a sense that the accused defendants were dangerous men - and felt, too, that it offended against natural justice for the accused not to be able to look his accuser in the face: 'If a man's telling the truth, you'll never be able to budge him. But if he's lying, believe you me, you'll budge him.' 'Do you stare at them?' Northam asked. ' 'Course you stare at them, 'cos you can't believe these people are saying what they're saying.' This seemed a bit naive on Mr Noonan's part: being stared at very hard by a man accused of murder, however innocent he turns out to be, could be an unnerving experience for most of us, however honest.

Northam's conclusion, that judges will now have to choose between open justice and effective justice, was surely over-dramatic - intimidation on the scale he was talking about here is still a relatively small problem, and putting people behind screens is unlikely to pave the way to large-scale fixing of trials by the police. Then again, perhaps it's a matter worth over-dramatising - the condition of liberty is eternal vigilance, and every wedge has its thin end.

In Treasure Islands (Radio 4, Sunday) Michael Rosen reported on the controversies raging over Political Correctness in children's books. Again, you needed to remind yourself that the abstract principles raised were important, since the matter was emphatically trivial - although you wouldn't have guessed it from the headlines in the national press about 'Thought Police', quoted by Rosen.

It's an issue that clearly has upset a number of children's authors. One man described bitterly how his editor had loved his new book (about a boy having adventures with a magic umbrella) but had wanted him to change the main character to a girl to avoid sexism. 'These changes don't reflect life as it is lived,' he protested, leaving you to ponder just how steeped in reality a story about magic umbrellas could be.

It was left to the author Robert Leeson to restore a sense of proportion - he thought that most of this 'censorship' was really just ordinary 'editorial control', and that writers simply had to accept that their work wasn't always oven-ready (a phrase that left the word 'turkey' hanging uncomfortably in the air). If this was censorship what word do we have to describe what happens in other countries? As thin ends of wedges go, this one seemed practically anorexic.

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